“Playing a rival team takes a hard toll on you. Playing four in a row is extremely tough,” declared coach Damon Floyd, whose Bears recently notched wins over county rivals Walker Valley and Cleveland, but fell to their closest neighbor to the south — Ooltewah. “Plus you throw in the district championship on top, we will need to be up again emotionally for this game.”
Making their first trip out of Bradley County in more than eight weeks, the Bears will head to McMinn County tomorrow evening to write the next chapter in the state’s second-longest rivalry.
Meeting on the gridiron for the 89th time since 1917, Bradley holds a 50-35-3 edge in the overall record, but the Cherokees have won 10 of the last 11 meetings, including a 48-36 shootout at Bear Stadium last year.
As predicted by the coaches before the season began, Friday’s battle will once again be for the District 5-AAA championship, as it was last fall.
McMinn County, the defending district title holders, come into this year’s clash with an 8-1 overall record and a perfect 5-0 district mark. The Tribe’s lone loss came in Week 4 by a 23-10 margin to a currently 3-6 Farragut team.
Bradley Central enters the contest with a 6-3 overall performance this season, including a 4-1 showing against 5-AAA squads. The Bears own a victory over 10th-ranked (3A) Polk County (6-3), but fell to No. 3 (4A) East Hamilton (8-1) and sixth-ranked (Division II) Baylor (6-3). Bradley’s other loss came to Ooltewah (6-3) three weeks ago by a 34-23 margin.
With seven of their opponents posting winning records, plus all nine having combined for a 45-36 record, the Bears have an overall scoring advantage of 213-191.
With a powerful one-two punch running attack and a strong defense, McMinn County has outscored its opponents by a 283-125 margin. However, the Cherokee opponents have a combined 33-49 record this season, with Cleveland (5-4), Walker Valley (5-4) and Ooltewah (6-3) being the only ones with current winning records.
Against common opponents (all 5-AAA teams), the Tribe has a 177-66 scoring edge, while the Bears outpointed the same squads by a 138-88 advantage.
“They (McMinn) have the best running back combination we’ve faced all year,” commented coach Floyd of the tandem of senior Walker Valley transfer Kelvin Wells Jr., and junior Dre Sanders. The pair have combined for nearly 1,650 yards so far this season.
“Wells is a cut runner with a lot of moves, while Sanders will run you over and keep going,” Floyd related. “Both get a lot of yards after contact. They are very unselfish and do a good job of blocking for each other when they’re not carrying the ball.
“McMinn is a power running team, but they do have the ability to throw,” the Bear coach added. “Their quarterback (sophomore Corbin Powers) is a threat to run as well, so they make you stay honest. They run a split-back offense out of the shotgun (formation).”
“They also have good size up front on both sides of the ball and nobody goes both ways,” Floyd stated. “They have a strong secondary as well. They are very well coached and don’t turn the ball over.”
Bradley will counter with an offense that has posted 3,060 yards this season, highlighted by senior quarterback Bryce Copeland’s 1,605 passing yards, plus he is averaging 5.7 yards per carry for another 674 yards. The southpaw signal caller has thrown for 10 touchdowns and run for nine more, including a 75-yard scoring sprint in last week’s 16-14 victory over Cleveland.
Despite having lost their top two tacklers — seniors Alex Hopkins and LJ Goodridge — for the season, the Bear defense has responded with strong play from junior Eduardo Trevino, who has been in on 65 total tackles, including 24 for loss and eight sacks, plus has three takeaways.
Senior Robert Bartolameolli has been in on 80 hits, with a dozen tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and a trio of takeaways while playing both in the secondary and at linebacker. Junior linebacker Jordan Timmons has also been in the opponent’s backfield a lot with 13 tackles for loss and a couple of sacks in his 64 hits, plus he has been responsible for four takeaways.
Sophomores Warren Crisp (42 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 sacks) and Derrick Murray (44 tackles, 9 TFL, 1 takeaway) have stepped in to pick up the slack and performed well, as has junior Austin Foss (41 tackles, 5 TFL, 5 takeaways).
“With all the injuries we’ve had, we are playing a lot of guys that we didn’t expect to be using on Friday nights this year, but they have responded well,” praised Floyd.
Other than Hopkins and Goodridge, plus long snapper James Peck and senior defensive end Jordan Sharp, who have missed the season due to injuries suffered in the preseason, everyone else should be ready to go for the Bears Friday night.
“Nate (Mills, a senior linebacker), Logan (Fetzner, a junior running back) and DJ (King a senior lineman) will all play,” the Bradley coach stated.
Although both teams will be in the TSSAA playoffs next week, tomorrow’s battle will determine where they will be seeded and who their opponents will be. The victors will get to open the postseason at home as the district champs, while the loser will more than likely have to travel.
If McMinn wins and Ooltewah defeats Walker Valley, the Bears will slip out of a guaranteed playoff position and become a wild-card team.
“We can’t worry about the playoffs right now. That will come next week,” declared Floyd, who has led his squad to three straight playoff berths. “Right now we are in the position everybody wants to be in when the season began — we are playing for a district championship. That’s our goal. That’s our focus.”